NASA partners with companies for moon and exploration technology

July 27, 2023, 7:02AMNuclear News
Concept art showing Project Harmonia’s RSG for lunar surface missions. (Image: Zeno Power)

NASA has selected 11 companies, including Zeno Power, to develop technologies that could support long-term exploration on the moon and in space. The technologies range from lunar surface power systems to tools for in-space 3D printing, which will expand industry capabilities for a sustained human presence on the moon through the Artemis program, as well as other NASA, government, and commercial missions.

"Partnering with the commercial space industry lets us at NASA harness the strength of American innovation and ingenuity," said NASA administrator Bill Nelson. "The technologies that NASA is investing in today have the potential to be the foundation of future exploration."

Details: The projects, chosen under the agency’s sixth Tipping Point opportunity, will be funded jointly by NASA and the industry partners. The total NASA contribution to the partnerships is expected to be $150 million. Each company will contribute a minimum percentage—at least 10-25 percent, based on company size—of the total project cost. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will issue milestone-based funded Space Act agreements lasting up to four years.

The partners: The selected technologies support infrastructure and capabilities in space and on the moon. The following are the awarded companies, their projects, and the approximate value of NASA’s contribution:

  • Zeno Power Systems of Washington, D.C. $15 million—A universal americium-241 radioisotope power supply for Artemis.
  • Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, Pa. $34.6 million—LunaGrid-Lite: demonstration of tethered, scalable lunar power transmission.
  • Big Metal Additive of Denver, Colo. $5.4 million—Improving cost and availability of space habitat structures with additive manufacturing.
  • Blue Origin of Kent, Wash. $34.7 million—In-situ resource utilization–based power on the moon.
  • Freedom Photonics of Santa Barbara, Calif. $1.6 million—Highly efficient watt-class direct diode lidar for remote sensing.
  • Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo. $9.1 million—Joining demonstrations in space.
  • Redwire of Jacksonville, Fla. $12.9 million—Infrastructure manufacturing.
  • Protoinnovations of Pittsburgh, Pa. $6.2 million—The Mobility Coordinator: an onboard commercial-off-the-shelf software architecture for sustainable, safe, efficient, and effective lunar surface mobility operations.
  • Psionic of Hampton, Va. $3.2 million—Validating no-light lunar landing technology that reduces risk, size, weight, power, and cost.
  • United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colo. $25 million—ULA Vulcan engine reuse scale hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator technology demonstration.
  • Varda Space Industries of El Segundo, Calif. $1.9 million—Conformal phenolic impregnated carbon ablator tech transfer and commercial production.

The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID, spacecraft is pictured after its atmospheric reentry test in November 2022. Through a new Tipping Point partnership, United Launch Alliance will continue development of the inflatable heat shield technology demonstrated by LOFTID. (Photo: NASA/Greg Swanson)

"Our partnerships with industry could be a cornerstone of humanity's return to the moon under Artemis," said Prasun Desai, acting associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "By creating new opportunities for streamlined awards, we hope to push crucial technologies over the finish line so they can be used in future missions. These innovative partnerships will help advance capabilities that will enable sustainable exploration on the Moon."

Zeno’s role: Zeno Power will develop an Am-241 radioisotope Stirling generator (RSG) for lunar surface missions. The team for the project, called Harmonia, includes Blue Origin, Intuitive Machines Inc., NASA Glenn Research Center, NASA Marshall Flight Center, Sunpower Inc., and the University of Dayton Research Institute.

Operations during the two-week lunar night and in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) are a challenge due to the extreme conditions in these environments. The RSG could enable lunar assets to survive and operate during the lunar night—extending mission durations from two weeks to several years. It could also enable long-duration exploration of scientifically important PSRs located at the lunar south pole. Harmonia’s goal is to develop flight-ready technology for a 2027 lunar surface demonstration.

Zeno and Blue Origin will collaborate with NASA Glenn Research Center to scale and optimize the integration of Stirling converters into an RSG design. The optimized RSG will increase the system efficiency three times, compared with legacy radioisotope power systems (RPSs)—yielding RSG technology for broad use by NASA and commercial space customers.

The missions: NASA’s Artemis missions are intended to usher in the next era of human space exploration, planetary science, and international cooperation. To operate in the harsh environment, lunar missions need a reliable, long-duration energy source such as radioisotope energy. Harmonia could enable NASA and its partners to establish a sustainable lunar presence with robots and astronaut crews.

“Project Harmonia will provide the technology to transform the moon from a location darkened by night and shadow to one enlightened by science and exploration, ultimately for the good of the nation and humankind,” said Tyler Bernstein, chief executive officer and cofounder of Zeno Power. “Zeno is excited to work with these industry leaders to bring both americium-241 and Stirling conversion technologies to the lunar surface for the first time.”

Heat converter: An RPS is a compact power source that converts heat generated by the decay of radioisotopes into a constant supply of clean energy. RPSs for space applications have historically been powered by plutonium-238 from the Department of Energy, with a fuel supply chain sufficient to power NASA’s marquee missions. Using materials science and nuclear fuel manufacturing innovations, Zeno’s design provides additional fuel options by using alternative radioisotopes that are currently categorized as nuclear waste. Am-241 is a long-lived isotope with favorable thermal and radiation profiles that can complement current Pu-238 based RPSs and enable not-yet-pursued mission classes.

“This project can demonstrate how broadly applicable this fuel source could be in establishing a plug-and-play interoperable system, whether that be for a lunar lander, exploration rover, or crewed activities,” said Zeno vice president of engineering Lindsey Boles. “Given the predictable thermal output and long half-life of this isotope, our systems can be used sustainably on the lunar surface for decades.”

NASA’s program: Through the Tipping Point solicitation, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate seeks private industry–developed space technologies that can foster the development of commercial space capabilities and benefit future NASA missions. The program furthers the technological readiness of awardees to provide services for new government and commercial purposes, including earthbound applications, bringing them from the laboratory to initial demonstration.


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